Following the Provincial Chapter of Holy Name Province of the Order of Friars Minor (The Franciscans) I have been spending some time with my brothers in Silver Spring, MD, before jetting off yet again to my next stop in the Winter 2010-2011 Dan Horan traveling tour (Holiday visits to family and friends, religious community commitments, research trip to archives, etc.) before returning to Siena College to begin teaching in the Spring semester.

One of the themes that arose during the Chapter, and continues to appear now and then among the brothers in casual conversation since, is that of the shifting landscape of religious expression and commitment. It is most clearly seen in the different way younger people (and, really, all people in a postmodern cultural milieu) relate to religious institutions and forms of religious/spiritual expression.

How do we respond to the “signs of the time,” as the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes instructs us is the duty of the Church in the modern world? This is the pressing question of our age, it is — to borrow the theme of my province’s recently closed Chapter — “where our deepest longing meets the world’s greatest need.” This theme continues to afflict me with its urgency because it is the undercurrent of so much conversation.

This morning over breakfast some of my fellow friars and I were chatting about the way in which people today “think differently” from previous generations, a conversation not unlike one shared among a group of us friars participating in a social media working group a few nights ago. Older friars (and other religious, priests, laypeople, etc.) have a very difficult time understanding the structure (or lack thereof) of social media and its manifold importance to evangelization and communication today.

I think this is simply one example, one iteration of the American religious landscape today. What needs to be addressed — honestly — is the shifting context for young adults and men and women of this age. That we need to utilize the means of communication available to us (such as this blog, for example) to reach populations of the faithful, the disenfranchised or the completely indifferent is an imperative that need not be debated. It must be accepted.

This is something that the USCCB (the U.S. Catholic Bishops) have actually got right. In their November meeting one bishop gave a very significant report to the assembled leaders of the local churches in the U.S. and stressed this point, following the Pope’s own increased focus in this area. All religious congregations and individual ministers must take this shifting landscape seriously.

At the table this morning one of the friars who heads up an important international office of social justice in Rome asked, “what I want to know is how do we reach out, connect with people who are not already convinced and coming to church today?” To which I and another friar responded, “electronically!” The Spirit is working in our world today, enkindling faith in the hearts of many, but the old ways of connecting no longer work. We need to learn to adapt to these changes, accepting them not as better or worse than the way things were before, but simply different from the way things were done before.

Or, as Tony Jones writes in his very interesting book, The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier (Jossey-Bass, 2008): “We are not becoming less religious, as some people argue. We are becoming differently religious. And the shift is significant.”

This is precisely what sociologists and theologians have been identifying in recent years. I and my friend and CARA sociologist Melissa Cidade co-authored a study that will be published in the Journal of Catholic Higher Education later this year, which states precisely this point. The affective religiosity of young adults — GenXers, Millennials and the youngest generation just being born today — cannot be measured by traditional parameters.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that young people are not religious and that the Church with its millennia-old tradition cannot meet their needs. On the contrary, it’s a matter of thinking anew and learning to express the faith in the language of the day.

As Pope John XXIII said to prophetically at the opening of the Second Vatican Council, “The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into consideration with patience if necessary, everything being measured in the forms and proportions of a magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character.”

It is time to take seriously the need for a new, “predominantly pastoral” expression of the faith for today.

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